A Wisconsin resident has brought a federal lawsuit challenging the state law that restricts individual political contributions to candidates and committees to $10,000 in a calendar year. As alleged in the complaint in the case, captioned Young v. Vocke, the aggregate limit is so low that if an individual were to make a maximum contribution to a statewide candidate, he or she would be barred from making other political contributions that year. The question is whether this violates the First Amendment.
This case is significant because it presents a possible follow-up to McCutcheon v. FEC, the legal challenge to the federal biennial contribution limits that the Supreme Court will hear next fall. As a general matter, the Court in Buckley v. Valeo recognized that contribution limits are constitutionally permissible. But there can be specific, rare circumstances in which contribution limits may be so low as to run afoul of the First Amendment. The new twist in the Wisconsin case—requiring individuals to carefully allocate their contributions arguably to a much stricter degree than the federal biennial limits—may well have some teeth. And depending on how McCutcheon is decided within the next year, this Wisconsin challenge could be a case to keep an eye on.
The state law being challenged is, however, somewhat of a moving target. State legislators are apparently collaborating on a bill that would raise the maximum contribution to statewide candidates to $20,000, and concomitantly raise the maximum aggregate annual contribution to match that amount. Would this change the constitutional calculus? We’ll have to see how the courts parse through all of this in the coming years.